Mountain Air

Glacier Institute's Blog

Top 5 Backcountry Sites in Glacier National Park

Backpacking season in the northern Rockies is well-underway! For those that were ahead of the game, advance reservations and route planning happened months ago. For those that might want to make last-minute itineraries, early mornings at the permit office are a necessity. It’s a good idea to go into the office with several options, be flexible, and trust that the NPS staff will do what they can to make you an enjoyable itinerary. 

A general note about all backcountry travel to designated wilderness sites in Glacier National Park – please remember to stay informed regarding current trail conditions using this link. Please follow all Leave No Trace principles and take adequate gear for the changing weather conditions. It is also mandatory to store all food, trash, and smellable items in the provided bear boxes or properly hang them from the provided hang poles.  

Below are my Top 5 Wilderness sites inside Glacier National Park:

5. Fifty Mountain (FIF) – This is the site that I’ve probably visited the most. Strategically placed for those hiking the upper portion of the Highline from Granite Park (CDT), coming northbound from Flattop, or hiking the loop to Many Glacier from the Belly River, Fifty Mountain is used to seeing backpackers on a wide variety of itineraries. Tucked in next to the Continental Divide, the view consists of lush alpine meadows, Cathedral Mountain, Vulture Peak, and several viewable glaciers. The site is also next to one of my favorite viewpoints in the park – Sue Lake Overlook. Keep your eyes peeled for grizzlies out for an evening graze in the meadows.  There are 5 total sites, with 4 available for advance reservation.

Fifty Mountain campsite views at sunset (Garrett Tovey)

4. Mokowanis Lake (MOL) – I stumbled upon this site accidentally! I was in the middle of a long traverse from Kintla Lake out to Many Glacier and needed a stopping point after Stoney Indian Pass. The permit I pulled had a night at MOL, a new site for me. Once I arrived, I spoke with many hikers attempting to bag Mt. Merritt, one of GNP’S six 10,000ft peaks. I also heard rumors of a gorgeous secluded lake that sits in a glacially-fed cirque basin a few miles off-trail from the site. I had a relatively short day in and day out, so the stars were aligned! The next morning, I ventured up to Margaret Lake, passing the unbelievably gorgeous series of waterfalls created as Pyramid Creek spills out of Lake Margaret. Keep your eyes peeled for moose and loons! There are 2 total sites, with 1 available for advance reservation. Please note – hiking off-trail is not recommended and should only be done by those that are comfortable with their route-finding skills and ability to reduce impact to sensitive areas.

The views from the hike up to Lake Margaret, directly behind the Mokowanis Lake site (Garrett Tovey)

3. Hole in the Wall (HOL) – This is certainly a well-known spot, and for good reason! HOL is fairly popular for backpackers completing the Northern Loop, a traverse between Kintla and Bowman Lakes.  The site sits in a gorgeous alpine basin, directly below Boulder Pass and surrounded by cliffs and meadows filled with wildflowers. The views here are nothing short of epic! There are 4 total sites, with 3 available for advance reservation.

The view coming down from Boulder Pass enroute to HOL site (Garrett Tovey)

2. Stoney Indian Lake (STO) – I first cruised past STO enroute to the Belly River drainage from Waterton Lake / Goat Haunt area. My jaw dropped as soon as I got to the beautiful blue-green lake surrounded by the Stoney Indian Peaks and Wahcheechee Mountain, a sculpted glacial horn. I knew I had to come back for an overnight visit. I was happy to get the permit the following summer and spent a wonderfully lazy late-summer day soaking in the lake and taking in the incredible feeling of solitude, as I had the entire site to myself. There are 3 total sites, with 2 available for advance reservation.

Obligatory selfie at Stoney Indian Lake with Stoney Indian Pass directly behind (Garrett Tovey)

1. Cracker Lake (CRA) – Talk about solitude! CRA lies at the end of the popular day hike to the milky turquoise Cracker Lake. Cracker lake itself sits tucked in next to Allen Mtn (9376’) and Mt. Siyeh (10,014’). The backcountry site lies just before the actual Cracker Lake Mine site, abandoned in 1902. Prospectors originally found copper at the location in 1897 and dug a deep mining tunnel, but later closed the site. When staying overnight at Cracker Lake, you can’t help but to feel like you have the entire park to yourself. Although the views from this backcountry site are unparalleled, come prepared for a windy night! There are 3 total sites, with 2 available for advance reservation. Please note – climbing in the abandoned mine shaft is strictly prohibited.

Tent site at CRA (Garrett Tovey)

Honorable Mention – Lake Ellen Wilson (ELL) – This site lies approximately halfway between the Jackson Glacier Overlook trailhead and Sperry Chalet trailhead. This site lies directly below the famous Gunsight Pass and includes views of Mt. Jackson and Lincoln Lake. It lies a little way off the main trail but the site more than makes up for it with expansive views and jaw-dropping beauty. I think my favorite thing about ELL is the massive boulder at the food preparation site! There are 4 total sites, with 3 available for advance reservation.

The view of Lake Ellen Wilson coming down from Gunsight Pass (Garrett Tovey)

Please remember, camping overnight at designated wilderness areas is only allowed with a valid permit. 

From May 1 through October 31, there is a $10 permit fee and additional $7/night per person camping fee payable upon permit issuance at a wilderness permit office. Winter wilderness camping permits (November 1–April 30) are free.
(https://www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/backcountry.html)